Seasons at the homestead contrast sharply from one another. This is not due solely to the weather swings of -55 to 90 degrees from winter to summer, but because of the nature of work and activity that each season brings. Most different are the times spent alone in the winter contrasted with the flurry of guests, volunteers, and friends that summer brings. In the summer, it is not unusual to have up to 5 people at a time visiting the homestead. Winter, it is common to spend a few weeks apart running errands, visiting family, and visiting friends in town.

I am alone in the cabin.  One hundred and fifty miles beyond the nearest road. Well over 50 miles from the nearest settlement and just as many from the nearest human soul. The cabin is nestled in the foot of the Alaska Range whose peaks are accented by the shimmering glow of the Northern lights. The mercury on the thermometer sticks at -55F, five degrees away from the lowest reading. It is 9 o’clock.

Bundled up in insulated gloves, coat, scarf and fur hat, I slip outside to split wood for the evening and give the animals a once over before tucking in to bed. Breath freezes in beads of moisture on wild, untied hair. My nose burns. Fingertips ache. I feed out an extra snack of compressed hay, spread it on the snow creaking like Styrofoam beneath horse hooves and my feet. The barn fire is fed, and I crack the axe into the pile of wood I bucked up during brief daylight hours. Wood piled in my arms, I carry it into the cabin and drop it on the wooden floor. Next? Feed the fire, and climb into the loft. Snuggled into a nest of wool blankets and sheepskins, I read a book by headlamp and slip into sleep.

I have been at the homestead solo for the past two and a half weeks. This is not unusual, simply part of having a remote farm with a bevy of animals to care for. Morgan and I take intermittent turns to town when the chance arises, visiting family and friends, and gathering up necessities.

People often get questions about time alone. Do you hate it? Do you go crazy? What is it like? What do you do? What if something happens to you while you are out there alone? It seems that for most, an extended period of time with no human contact is an intangible thing. Something that they will likely never experience, and many have no desire to.

The first time spent alone at the homestead was a few weeks after we secured our winter camp. With a plane load of supplies delivered, and our tipi home pitched and secure, Morgan left for a few weeks for work. A plane landed on a frozen lake two miles from home, and took him away. There is nothing quite like being alone in the vast wilderness, listening to the sound of the single engine craft, your one connection to safety and the rest of humanity, disappearing behind mighty mountain peaks. And there you are. Alone.

That first stint alone I was quiet. Hesitant to speak for fear of cracking open that unbroken peace and silence of empty forest. Scared to let the wild woods know a foreign creature was there, putting footsteps in snow no human boot had ever traced.  I spent my days quietly roaming frozen creeks followed by the cheerful black-capped chickadees. I cached wood for the winter, played guitar by the wood stove and drank pot after pot of blackened coffee. I wrote and watched pine marten and river otter, slowly beginning  to feel a piece of this place that is now my home.

Now, we have established ourselves in a tiny outcropping of a seemingly endless tract of Northern country. Days are spent tracking paths in the snow or bundled inside the cabin to carve on the days that weather impedes outdoor activities.

To the questions people ask:

Do you hate it?           No, time spent alone is a luxury.

Do you go Crazy?       Around week two I start craving conversation. If I am frustrated with a task, say the chainsaw breaks and I am working on small engine repair, there is exponentially more cursing.

What is it like?              It is freeing and empowering. Days go your way, you choose how you spend your time. Weather is the only limiting factor.

What do you do?        When the chores are done- cutting and hauling wood, hauling water, feeding animals, cooking dog food, stoking fires, checking traps– I focus on my own work or projects that I have wanted the time and space to complete.  I write music. This time, I extended my trap line and carved bowls for the gift shops in town. I take yoga classes by podcast every evening, write, tan hides that have been waiting for attention, draw, and paint.

What if something happens to you while you are alone?            This question seems to be of the most common. Being alone in extreme conditions a two-hour flight from the nearest road can be dangerous. While alone, it is extra important to analyze every situation.  Before checking traps that require travel along frozen creeks, make sure you know the ice thickness. Analyze the weather before you travel far from home. Wear your safety gear when running the chainsaw and before pressing the throttle, take an extra look at your escape routes. Whenever leaving the homestead for a day-long expedition, make sure to carry extra gear. Always carry a lighter, snacks, compass, map, a knife, and an extra layer.  Always be prepared to be able to spend a day away from home. For extra safety, I carry a Garmin InReach or a PLB (personal locator beacon). These devices have SOS buttons that could call in search and rescue crews in case of a situation threatening life or limb. It is important to note that these devices are not a guarantee of safety, but a back up in case something goes truly wrong.

Morgan was supposed to return today, but the weather has other plans. Flying small planes in the mountains is fickle. A large storm is blowing in from the South, impeding passage through the Range. Out the cabin window are white-out snow conditions. My fire burns bright. Moose stew is bubbling in a pot, and I have taken out a rabbit skin to tan.

How would you spend a winter day snowed in out in the wilderness cabin?

After years of planning, a water pump was installed in our new addition during November. This marks a huge improvement in our year-round Water System.

In Summer, water requires much less forethought and labor to access. We have a small, energy efficient, pump that draws water from our creek for drinking, wash water and into the hoses and sprinklers that irrigate our 6,000 square foot garden.  A camp hot water heater provides incredible outdoor showers, or choose to embrace the wild and bathe in the creek. Summer is a time of ease of access to that stuff of life.

Winter is another story. Though freeze up makes travel easier, access to water becomes a huge chore. For 4 years now we have been chipping holes in the creek ice, dipping in 5 gallon buckets, and bringing them back by sled. This is a daily chore, sometimes even twice daily. So, when designing our addition, we planned to put in a water system that could be used year round. It is simple, efficient, and took a lot of work and forethought to pull off.

Winter, Alaska, Watering hole, Axe, Buckets

The winter watering hole. A thing of the past. Photo Credit: Margaret Stern

Morgan tells the story of this new water system and how it came to be.:

In my mind, one mark of civilization is easy access to hot water.  Creating a system that delivers hot water more or less on demand is not simple or easy in any climate.  The extreme cold of interior Alaska makes this all the more complex.  Like most things, having indoor plumbing depends on laying a good foundation.  In cold country, a good foundation is an insulated foundation. For the addition and future home of the well, we started with a well insulated, sturdy foundation. Forms for concrete were made with high density two-inch foam board. Sand and gravel were laboriously harvested and washed free of silt. Portland cement was flown in by bush plane over the course of two years.   Once finally acquired and prepared, the cement, sand, and gravel were mixed by hand and poured into the forms of high density foam. It was quite a project! Most of the 2017 construction season was dedicated solely to the foundation project.  There’s no sense in plumbing if it can’t be kept from freezing.

Foundation, construction, alaska, by hand

The foundation first had to be dug by hand. Photo Credit: Margaret Stern

Rigid foam, foundation, bush construction

Then the forms laid. Photo Credit: Margaret Stern

cement, foundation, construction, cabin construction

Then the cement mixed and poured. Voila! Foundation. We were lucky to have friends helping with this! Photo Credit: Morgan Beasley

With the foundation laid, we began work on the addition. Once made livable and insulated during the summer of 2018, I cut the handle of a pick mattock down short and grabbed a shovel head without a handle.  These tools were necessary to dig a narrow well shaft.  We hoped that a sand point could be driven, but the rocky alluvial deposits under loamy topsoil required digging. The well we intended to install within the house would have to be dug the old fashioned way: by hand.  After I dug about six feet below grade, water began to seep into the hole. At 7 feet, I was standing in a foot of water and could dig no further without first pumping the water out.  I was giddy that the “well in the cellar idea” might actually pan out.  (Fun Fact: the first steam engines were developed to pump water out of holes).  I fired up our little modern gasoline powered pump and kept on digging.  The deeper I went the faster water flowed into the well shaft.  Eventually, the pump could barely keep up. It was moving 50+ gallons a minute out of the shaft.  I was standing in a subterranean creek about 9 feet below grade.  After climbing out of the hole and shutting the pump off,  four feet of crystal clear water quickly rose into the well shaft.  What a milestone.

Morgan digging Photo Credit: Margaret Stern

Once all the pieces and fittings were gathered and the kitchen layout finalized, I cut a hole in the floor and installed our fist phase of indoor plumbing: a simple pitcher pump attached to 12 feet of 1.25” galvanized steel pipe.  No more will we hack through the ice, kneel down and dip buckets into the creek in -40 degree temperatures.  With a few minutes of pumping we now have more water than half an hour of back breaking hauling and chopping could provide.  The pump empties into a 10-gallon water jacket on the wood cook stove, providing a ready supply of hot water for washing, cleaning and soaking horse feed.

Water drain Photo Credit: Morgan Beasley

 All that water we now pump out of the ground has to go somewhere.  Carryingwater outside and tossing it in the yard creates a mini grey water glacier in the yard come spring.  So, in the last few diggable days of the fall of 2018 we dug an 80-foot drain line out from the house. It was insulated with whatever we had: foam wrap, feed sacks, leftover foam board, plastic sheeting, worn out tarps, moss and sawdust.  Once the sink is installed the drain line will actually see some use. Before that can happen, a cabinet and counter must be made.

The water system develops one slow step at a time. The hard work that we put in has created a water system that drastically outpaces hauling buckets in a sled.

 Once the power system is upgraded to its second phase (another story),  we will install an electric well pump and pressure tank.  With truly modern water pressure we hope to pressurize a hot water tank heated by water coils running through the wood stove. Then, endless hot running water will be at our fingertips.  For now, we are excited about the simple improvement of a pitcher pump…. and we still get a work-out!

Well-Fed: Food on the Homestead

Where does it come from? How is it stored?

Nothing like fresh salad! Photo Credit: Makiko Yoshida

To us, self-sufficiency means providing most of our own food. In most cases, food sourced by your own hand is affordable, healthy, and more delicious. Once you have tasted fresh lettuce out of the garden or a perfectly ripe strawberry, any other will pale in comparison. You are serving up great rewards when you eat a meal composed solely of ingredients you harvested from your garden.

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Life Dictated by Flyable Weather

October. A month of weather. Ice fog blanketed the landscape for days. When it lifted, the snow fell. When the snow stopped and the clouds cleared, temperatures dropped, and the wind howled. October consistently dishes out the worst weather we see.

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Water System, Final Harvests, Friends   September 2018 September was a unique month for us at the homestead… and away from the homestead. During the beginning of the month, Morgan laid insulated pipe for our gray water system. We are increasingly closer to running water at the homestead! The pieces are all coming together. During […]

August 2018 Fall has hit. We are entering mid-October, and just now reviewing the final flash of summer. Before the snow flurries, we enter our own mad flurry of preparation for colder months. As with each summer season before, we kept busy with projects. We are consistently more ambitious than time allows. August kicked off […]

Ponies, Fencing… and Running Water??

July 2018

Summer in the North is a great blur. Folks say that the constant light is as beautiful as it is disorienting. Has it been one day punctuated by many naps, or has it been a month? It is hard to tell where the day starts and stops.

July in the mountains. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Selktas

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